Chartered Institute of Building Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Building

Opinion

Project planning in the ‘new normal’

22 June 2020 | By Tom Francis, CIOB Manchester Hub

The role of the project planner in scenario planning and providing alternatives will be key to overcoming the challenges of the pandemic, says Tom Francis.

Tom Francis

The impact of covid-19 on construction works has brought the role of the programme into sharp focus.

It is imperative that contractors successfully plan and programme their way through social distancing and coronavirus constraints. Ensuring the works maintain productivity and reduce delay and disruption will be critical to success. Low margins already impair the sector, and covid-19 measures will likely make matters worse.

The new governmental and Construction Leadership Council’s Site Operating Procedures for covid-19 workforce protection should be commended. Nonetheless, while positive for the workforce, the time and monetary impact of implementing will be significant.

The site planner and wider team must consider many constraining factors for the operation of site works. These include consideration of slow remobilisation due to factors such as:

  • Ill health
  • Furloughing or an unwillingness to return until the pandemic subsides
  • Materials held up in ports
  • Supplier insolvency.

All the above, and potentially other factors will present further unquantifiable risk and uncertainty to the programme.

The most immediate issue is likely to be the social distancing of site activities. Construction is by nature ‘gang’ related. Small teams work together for the greater good of increased productivity. Where a hod-carrier can no longer place bricks adjacent the bricklayer, or the steelfixer must keep a distance from the shuttering joiner, productivity will undoubtedly fall.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that productivity has reduced by between 25% to 75% on sites reopening since lockdown. Productivity will likely rise from these levels, albeit slowly. The industry is adept at overcoming challenges. Nonetheless, a lasting fall in output should be expected.

Sector impact will vary. Civil works perhaps less so as plant is often controlled by a single operator in the open environment. Internal building trades will likely suffer the largest impact. Mechanical, electrical and fit out trades often work in close proximity within a closed environment. High rise construction will be affected by fewer operatives allowed into hoists and lifts.  

Impact on project planners

How do project planners plan for this ‘new normal’? Standard output rates for the productivity of trades will no longer apply. No ‘time and motion’ work studies exist for social distancing of covid-19. In addition, the programme is likely to be particularly sensitive to changes in the critical path.

Before lockdown, site management would have had a reasonable view of the current and future critical paths. Factoring in furloughed designers, insolvent suppliers and unavailable materials creates uncertainty and change. It is expected that the critical path will shift often between remaining, design, procurement and installation.

Adjusting to this change will require the project planner to maintain regular updates of the programme.

Where required, these should be issued contemporaneously to the client, ideally weekly or as a minimum, monthly. Incidences of disagreement over contractor’s notices of delay have already been observed. The party receiving the notice considers the site open and continuing with minimal impact. The contractor, closer to the loss of productivity, has a different view. The likelihood for disputes is large.

Daily labour records recording key activities are critical. They should identify:

  • What the workforce are doing
  • Where they are working
  • What is achieved and cannot be achieved.

Detailed record keeping practices have fallen by the wayside over the years. The current crisis brings the need for good records to the fore. Record keeping should be viewed as a dispute avoidance measure rather than a claims practice.

Some evidence suggests employers recognise preliminaries costs will rise to include for extra site accommodation, hoists and site logistic measures. But development budgets will force contractors into new ways of operating. The Construction Leadership Council recently issued its ‘Roadmap to Recovery’. New approaches are called for in compensating for the loss of productivity arising from the pandemic. These include offsite manufacturing and further digitisation.

The role of the project planner in this ‘new normal’ will be key. Recording changes in productivity and emerging programme risks will factor large. However, the wider role will be in scenario planning and providing alternatives to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.

Tom Francis is a director at Decipher and current chair of the CIOB Manchester Hub